There’s a small resurgence in Canadian coal mining, but with limited data and testing, compensation boards are ill-prepared for the harm to workers’ lungs
It’s deathly quiet this far underground, except for two things: the steady drip of water, echoing down the dark mine shaft, and the rattle from deep inside Wish Donovan’s chest.
Mr. Donovan, a former Nova Scotia coal miner who spent most of his life below the surface, is used to both sounds. Water is everywhere down here, and so are the constant reminders that his lungs are slowly choking him. At 79, he understands that pneumoconiosis – better known as black lung, an incurable and often fatal sickness – is just a part of life for an old miner.
“Some days are worse than others,” he says, pausing to catch his breath and take a pull on his inhaler as he makes the long walk back to the mine’s entrance. Mr. Donovan is a guide at the Miners Museum in Glace Bay, where he takes visitors down into the centre’s replica mine shaft, telling them stories of a time when coal was king in Cape Breton, and of the miners who toiled to help make the industrialized world run.
But after 32 years in mining, he can also share the darker legacy of that work. He watched his father slowly die from black lung, a condition caused by chronic exposure to coal dust, which creates inflammation and scar tissue in the lung’s air sacs. He began experiencing problems with his own lungs after about seven years, during a time when he was a supervisor specializing in pulling men out of the rubble when a shaft collapsed.
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